'Simple and Seamless' or 'Significant Obstacle'?

A coalition of academic, library and technology associations criticizes Elsevier's new sharing and hosting policy, saying it undermines open-access initiatives.

May 21, 2015

Academic, library and technology organizations are denouncing a new sharing and hosting policy adopted last month by publisher Elsevier, saying it undermines open-access policies at colleges and universities and prevents authors from sharing their work.

Elsevier, which publishes thousands of journals, introduced the policy last month. It aims to strike a balance between making sharing “simple and seamless” and “being consistent with access and usage rights associated with journal articles,” the publisher said in a blog post.

Many librarians and open-access advocates, however, see the policy as an attack on institutional repositories, where colleges collect and make available research their faculty members produce. The new policy does not allow authors to share their journal article manuscripts publicly through those repositories, only privately “with a colleague or with an invitation-only online group.” Availability through the repositories is subject to journals’ embargo periods, which in some cases last for several years.

On Wednesday, 23 organizations, among them Creative Commons, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and library and open-access associations in countries such as the U.S., Australia, Canada, China, Brazil and the U.K., issued a joint statement calling on Elsevier to reconsider the policy. The Confederation of Open Access Repositories and the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, or SPARC, organized the campaign.

“This policy represents a significant obstacle to the dissemination and use of research knowledge, and creates unnecessary barriers for Elsevier-published authors in complying with funders’ open-access policies,” the statement reads. “In addition, the policy has been adopted without any evidence that immediate sharing of articles has a negative impact on publishers' subscriptions.”

Alicia Wise, director of access and policy for Elsevier, in a statement said she was surprised by the negative response to the policy, as the publisher has received “neutral to positive responses” from researchers. She called the new policy “more liberal in supporting the dissemination and use of research” throughout the publication process, in institutional repositories and across social networks.

“At each stage of the publication process authors can share their research: before submission, from acceptance, upon publication and post publication,” Wise said in the statement. “For authors who want free immediate access to their articles, we continue to give all authors a choice to publish gold open access with a wide number of open-access journals and over 1,600 hybrid titles.”

Open-access advocates described the policy as the latest attack against institutional repositories. In 2012, Elsevier became more restrictive about authors depositing journal manuscripts in those repositories, which some interpreted as the publisher punishing institutions that had created open-access policies. The publisher says it was merely “pointing out to a number of repositories that they did not have agreements with Elsevier for their mandated policies,” according to general counsel Mark Seely.

Heather Joseph, executive director of SPARC, said the latest policy update is an attempt to slow down the spread of open-access policies.

“I really do think it’s an attempt to undermine the effect of repositories and of universities controlling their own intellectual output in favor of ‘if you want to do open access, that’s fine, but you have to go through us as a publisher,’” Joseph said. “They definitely see them as potential competition and a way to undercut profit.”

Some librarians also questioned the scope of the new policy. Kevin L. Smith, director of copyright and scholarly communication at the Duke University Libraries, analyzed the policy in a set of blog posts, calling the Elsevier announcement a “masterpiece of doublespeak” and a “retreat from open access.”

According to a Elsevier, the policy applies to “all articles previously published and those published in the future.” Critics said they are not sure how such a requirement would be enforced, but the burden would likely rest on the platforms hosting the content to remove incorrectly shared articles. Elsevier said it will not send takedown notices to authors.

“I wonder if this means that ‘post-print’ versions of articles that were posted recently in compliance with Elsevier’s previous policy, but are still new enough to be inside the newly imposed embargo period, must be taken down,” Smith said in an email. “If that is the expectation, it certainly belies that claim that Elsevier’s goal is to facilitate sharing.”

Wise said the policy is not “intended to suddenly embargo and make inaccessible content currently available to readers.” She added that Elsevier is “happy to have a dialogue to discuss these, or any other, issues further.”


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